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When learning how to lead, an exploratory look at role models

Barry Z. Posner (Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California, USA)

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 29 April 2021

Issue publication date: 23 June 2021




The purpose of this study is to identify who people indicate are their role models for learning how to lead and explore how demographic characteristics may affect these choices.


A global online survey, involving over 34,000 respondents, indicated, from a list of 14 possibilities, the role model category from whom they learned to lead. Respondents indicated their age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, educational level, hierarchical level and job function. Chi-square analysis was used to identify how these factors may have affected the choice of role models distribution.


Family member (parents, siblings and other family outside of the immediate family) was found to be the most important role model category when it came to learning how to lead. Ranked second was immediate supervisor/manager. The rank order in terms of frequency of role model choices was not substantially different across demographic characteristics, though there were statistically significant differences regarding the relative importance of the various role model categories by demographics.

Research limitations/implications

The results offer plentiful opportunities for future scholars to delve more into both the nature and actions of role models, in keeping with social learning theory. Future scholars can investigate the nature of people's relationships with leadership role models, especially conceptualizing why and how various demographic factors affect how people learn to lead.

Practical implications

Understanding who people have as role models for what they have learned about leadership can provide important insights for those responsible for leadership development. Similarly, individuals who are in role model “positions” (e.g. parents, teachers, managers) can be more aware of how their behaviors have implications for how their audience learns what effective leadership looks like in action.


This study addressed a relatively unexplored area in the leadership literature, namely within what category of role model have people found to be most important in helping them learn to lead. The large and diverse sample, across a multitude of demographic characteristics, strengthens the generalizability of the findings.



Posner, B.Z. (2021), "When learning how to lead, an exploratory look at role models", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 42 No. 5, pp. 802-818.



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